Human Rights and Gender Equality
The subject of gender equality may seem outdated for many young people. “Women’s rights” conjures up images of angry young women burning their bras whilst rejecting the gender stereotypes enforced on their mothers. British landmarks in the struggle for gender equality include: women being allowed to vote in elections on the same terms as men in the 1920s; widespread availability of the contraceptive pill in the 1960s; and, the first female Prime Minister in 1979.
Feminism may seem irrelevant for young women today who believe that their gender has never hindered their progress. However, many women could still face situations where they may be treated differently on account of their gender. Further, men may also fall victim to gender discrimination.
What Does Gender Equality Mean?Gender equality means that everyone receives the same treatment regardless of their gender. It does not generally mean that women should receive preferential treatment to men in order to redress a perceived imbalance.
Some men may feel that there are situations where they are discriminated against or treated differently because of their gender. Men have the same entitlement as women to rely on equality and human rights laws to ensure that they are not discriminated against. If a man is treated differently to the way in which a woman in the same set of circumstances is treated he may have suffered gender discrimination.
Gender Equality and Human Rights LawArticle 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights states that the other rights contained in the Convention must be applied without discrimination on any grounds. The Article specifically says that there must be no such discrimination due to an individual’s gender. This rule against discrimination was enshrined in British law - together with the other Convention rights - by the Human Rights Act. Individuals can rely on this law to ensure that public authorities respect and protect their human rights without discrimination.
The Equality ActThe Equality Act 2010 brings together many different equality and anti-discrimination laws which already existed in UK law. The Act also introduces some new rights as well as strengthening some previous ones. By having equality laws brought together in one Act it should be easier for individuals to know what their rights are. It should also make it easier for businesses, service providers, educational establishments and other organisations to understand what they have to do to satisfy their obligations under equality law.
The Act covers equality and the right to be free from discrimination on many grounds, including gender. It also contains provisions for the positive action which may be taken, in respect of some individuals, to redress potential discrimination or inequality of opportunity.
Much of the Equality Act came into effect in October 2010. However, it is not certain that all of the new Act will be brought into force by the UK's coalition government. The Equality Act was the brainchild of the UK's previous Labour government and some of the ideologies and aims contained in it may be incompatible with some of the policies of the UK's new administration.
Equality and the Coalition Government's Spending CutsSome critics of the UK government's 2010 'austerity budget' have argued that the spending cuts contained in it may have a disproportionately negative impact on women. It is said that this could mean that the spending cuts contravene the UK's equality laws. Under equality laws the government was obliged to carry out an assessment of the likely impact of the spending cuts to ensure that they would not disproportionately affect any particular sections of society such as the disabled, the aged – or those of a particular gender. It appeared that no such assessment had been carried out.
One organisation sought to have a judicial review of the government's behaviour. However, the court hearing the application rejected it. The court appears to have decided that, whilst the government did have an obligation to make this assessment, it is for the Equality and Human Rights Commission to assess whether the government satisfied its duty. The government subsequently admitted that they had carried out no impact assessment of the proposed spending cuts.
Those concerned about this issue may take little comfort from the fact that many of the Equality Act clauses which the coalition government may not bring into force include those requiring impact assessments. Further, it has previously been announced that the Equality and Human Rights Commission is amongst those ‘quangos’ which is due to have its budget cut by the coalition government.